We received an inquiry about a bronze in our collection. I thought the response interesting and worth posting as a blog

Antoine-Louis Barye’s bronzes have been an avocation for many, many years. We have a small personal collection, which I would be glad to show you.

With these bronzes I have always focused on early casts and the quality of the bronze, what the French call the “belle epreuve”.   Barye had a long career and some very difficult times.   He was meticulous in the execution of his pieces but not a sound financial manager, the net result of which was the bankruptcy sale of his studio in 1848 to pay his debts.  Other bronze foundries bought his models with the “droit de tirage” (right of casting) and then continued to cast the pieces.  In 1875, in his estate sale, the same thing happened with many of the pieces purchased by Barbedienne who continued to cast well into the 20th century.  Keep in mind that the concept of the bronze as a ‘limited edition’ comes in the 20th century.  Perhaps the first that I am aware of is the sale of Degas’ bronzes after his death in 1918; the editions were limited to 22.

I bought this bronze with the French dealer – Philip Brame. His family had a most distinguished collection of Barye bronzes.  Important to know that this piece came from the collection of Fabius Freres, also one of the great names in this field and the go-to source for early pieces… (See below).  Philip passed away several years ago and, frankly, the bronze got mixed up with my collection and we never really tried to sell it. Only recently did we become aware of that and Rebecca put it on ArtNet the day before you saw it.

What is special about this piece is the marking and the patina — both indicate the direct involvement of Barye. Early on he decided to number his casts and did this for awhile until he got pushback when some of his popular pieces got to #90 — at which point he stopped. In the casts that he did himself there is sharpness in the cast that comes from the re- carving of the wax before casting

There was a cast of the mate to our piece, “Lion Devourant Une Biche”, not to compare with ours in quality, at Sothebys,  November 23, 2010 — lot 33 that brought  $11,868.

This was not numbered and is obviously a much later cast.

More recently, October 26, 2011 Sotheby’s had the important sale of the Fabius collection.  Most of the pieces were early casts and brought appropriate prices. A very comparable piece to ours — JAGUAR DÉVORANT UN AGOUTI, sold two times. Lot 272, the bronze marked #1, brought $35,000 while lot 279, Marked #20 brought $17,715. A small elephant brought over $1,000,000.

The Fabius auction shows that the market is intelligent and does distinguish … good, better, best – and that there are ‘real’ collectors out there.

Many years ago I started to deal in Japanese prints but stopped because people couldn’t understand the market. The thing was that the great artists would make a wood block and print it exquisitely, often with mica. Later, if it was really popular, they would recarve the block and sell more and so on. There was a steady degradation in quality but it was always the same image. So why, clients would ask, does one sell for $20,000 and the other for $2,000? They didn’t see the difference.

In 1975 Jeanne Wasserman, at the Fogg Museum in Boston, made a show called “Metamorphoses in Nineteeth Century French Sculpture”.  It focused on Rodin, Barye and Carpeaux.  At the time, we had a large collection of Carpeaux bronzes.

We lent a number of pieces to her show. The point of the show was CHANGE ……… how the works of all of these artists degraded with time from sharp intelligent conceptions to, in many cases, the equivalent to a kids camp sculpture made from a bar of soap.

I wish that there were more exhibitions that contrasted GOOD, BETTER, BEST as an exercise for the eye of the collector.

Albert Sacks book The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American: The Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece, first published in 1950 and subsequently redone illustrates the point, if on a different subject. It is a standard for every collector in that field.

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